March 25, 2016

Radical Islam - Defintional Problems

After the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, a number of different hashtags (consistent with Twitter's motto: "# Today, Forgotten Tomorrow) sprang up for people to immediately ally themselves with some cause related to the attacks. For instance, #stopislam (and related #banislam) immediately became popular. From what I saw among my various more...outspoken...Twitter friends, there seems to be an immediate identification of all Islam with violence. On the other hand, there were those who refused to call the terrorists Muslim at all, insisting that they simply be called terrorists, as if "Islam" were entirely unrelated to the terrorists themselves. Closer to the middle (I suppose...) were those who insisted that, while these were Muslims who committed the acts of terror, they were either "unrepresentative," or "not real Muslims." On the odd side were those in Belgium who tweeted variations on "#stopislam is worse than what is happening in Belgium." I am not sure what sort of mentality leads one to believe a #hashtag is worse than mass murder, but leaving that aside...

As I pondered these various statements, a few problems occurred to me. One is in response to those who refuse to call the terrorists "Muslim," though they seem to have associated themselves with ISIS, which is manifestly an Islamic movement. This is a definitional problem. As far as I know, there is no single definition as to what defines "being a Muslim." A few years back, Jonah Goldberg argued in USA Today that:
Today, Islam is chockablock with Muslim Luthers claiming to have a monopoly on the Quran's true meaning. Murderers can shop around for a fatwa endorsing the most horrific — and technically un-Islamic — barbarism like junkies searching for a corrupt doctor with a prescription pad for hire.
As anyone who bothers to read about Islam is aware, there are various sects, each with competing claims to the truth concerning Islamic teachings, including Sunni, Shia, and others. Without doubt, ISIL and the Taliban also believe that the way they pursue Islam through violent means is part of their belief. While we need not believe in the pure belief of all members of these sects, nor do we need reduce it to some entirely materialist or secular argument (e.g., they pursue terrorism because they lack some material possession, or seek power). The terrorists, like anyone else, may have mixed or even subconscious motives for their pursuit. However. without a single idea of what it means to follow Islam, to be a Muslim, it is difficult to deny that, when terrorists claim to be Muslim, they are Muslim.

A very similar problem holds for those who admit the terrorists believe themselves to be Muslim, but deny that a "true Muslim" would resort to violent jihad. This is what philosopher Antony Flew called the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Putnam coined the phrase based on the following hypothetical:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing". The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: "No true Scotsman would do such a thing".
What the Scot has done is to exclude the case he doesn't like by asserting, without some model for comparison, that the arbitrary definition of "true," excludes the case of the Scot who has done terrible things. Obviously, there are arguments against Islamic terrorists being "true" Muslims; well, better arguments than the Scot has. However, the problem remains that at least some people who declare themselves Muslim are violent terrorists, link that terrorism with their beliefs in Islam, and it is not enough to declare that they are "not" Muslim, and not enough to declare that they are not "true" Muslims.

With this said, the opposite problem is easier to diagnose - namely, those who assert that the core of Islamic thought is violence, and therefore, all Muslims are violent. This is like the inverse of the "no true Scotsman" issue, namely:
Imagine  Jim, an American, sitting down with bacon and toast one morning, and hears of a terrorist attack. A Muslim group immediately claims responsibility. A local Imam, interviewed on television, claims that not all Muslims are violent, and therefore, all Muslims should not be associated with the terrorism. Jim laughs, thinking, "Liar, the core of Islam is violence, and therefore, this Imam is no true Muslim."
This is problematic for Jim, as it is obvious that there are groups of Muslims who eschew violence, and simultaneously, claim to be Muslim.

I suppose the point of these ruminations is to encourage people to be careful in their thinking, and avoid broad brush and true Scotsman fallacies as they encounter events in the world. This is true whether accusing all Muslims of violence, all Catholics for sex scandals, or anything similar. If one is tempted to accuse all members of another group of some unsavory act committed by a few, or to exclude members of one's own group who commit some heinous act while claiming to be members, then one must consider the matter more deeply, and endure that one is not engaged in a fallacy that enables one to shortcut the careful thinking that is required of good judgment.

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